Self-Regulation through Embodied Cognition
Help children learning autonomously through outdoor play.
Support children rediscover time, take time, appreciate time under the open sky.
These 5 zero-budget activities are perfect for the age group 2-8.
If there were a theory of the fantastic as there is for logic, then we would be able to discover the art of invention.
In 1973, the Italian writer and children’s book author Gianni Rodari set this quotation to introduce his magnum opus, The Grammar of Fantasy. However, imagination requires no theory, merely time.
Time is the main element children need to discover their personal art of invention. They are driven by their innate intuition, imagination, and creativity as they handle, explore and experiment with objects and materials. The joy of learning is also stimulated by imagination and not only through logic.
With a young child’s physical health and well-being in mind, I tried to imagine outdoor spaces where children can slow down, enjoy the time, develop their soft skills, and experience psychomotor learning. These prepared environments nurture the child’s self-guided exploration of sensory perception, movement, creativity, and imagination in nature & daylight.
Each prepared environment can be set up and equipped by the parents or teachers themselves, or together with the children. Any outdoor space can be used: gardens, backyards, terraces, or the areas surrounding child care facilities. I have designed 5 play ideas children can engage with just by following their intuition. Here they are free to experiment, understand and apply anything their innate creativity suggests.
Take time to observe the children. Slow your pace along with them. Do not set any rules or explain to children how they could improve their play idea. Listen to their stories and thinking out loud, and enjoy the quality of your time together.
Sensory Play Idea #1. “The Fairytale Forest”
A fairytale forest exists somewhere in the outdoor space around every house, school, or child care facility. It is a space children seek out to play by themselves with no or very few toys, and where they use nature as the stage for their games, adventures, and stories. This can be a shady place under a tree where light and shadow form particular patterns or one near large stones where moss grows to form a green carpet for their stories and games.
If your children don’t have discovered this place in the outdoor space yet, you can prepare the environment: lay some willow branches out, some rocks and half cut smaller tree trunks to create an inviting retreat to serve as stage and scenery for the great stories and fairy tales children will invent.
Sensory Play Idea #2. “The Outline”
Children love rocks! They love throwing them, rolling them, and using them to build things. «While the child builds up the tower, she is actually building herself too,» wrote German pedagogue Hugo Kükelhaus (1900–1984) in his reflections on the ways that bodies can learn.
How about giving children an opportunity to compare natural shapes with their own shape? Feeling comfortable in space is something children need to experience, starting with their own proprioception. Learning in outdoor spaces allows them to explore how their body feels comfortable in relation with earth and gravity.
Sensory Play Idea #3. “The Labyrinth”
This is a place/space that kids can explore in all sorts of ways: barefoot for experimenting with their tactile sense, balancing on the edges, moving backward, forwards, and sideways, going inside and coming back outside, discovering shortcuts, and playing with their sense of direction.
The most fantastic thing for children, though, is actually building the labyrinth. They can use sticks, stones, and ropes or dig the labyrinth in sand, mud, or grass.
Designing labyrinths challenges children and helps them discover the complexity within simplicity.
Sensory Play Idea #4. “The Humming Bucket”
Remember Peek-a-boo? Here’s how it works: a child starts by observing a bucket sitting on a tree stump outside in the daylight. While the goal here is not to help kids grasp the concept of object permanence, the Humming Bucket uses the psychomotor basics of that game, alternating light and darkness, sight and invisibility, and presence and absence.
A child puts their head inside the bucket and begin humming or buzzing to themself, experimenting with their auditory perception and feeling their body’s vibrations.
They might choose to close their eyes to “look at” or concentrate on themselves. Afterward, they will experience the joy of “resurfacing” into the daylight.
The “humming bucket” construction can also improve children’s communication and language skills and help them find their way to resilience. All you need is a plastic bucket (or a large vase or soup pot) and a tree stump!
Sensory Play Idea #5. “The Laundry”
Your own childhood memories play a crucial role in designing the Laundry. Do you remember the fresh smell of clean laundry hung up to dry in the backyard or garden? Do you remember the sensation of the washing brushing against your skin as you walked through? Wasn’t it just wonderful and tempting to play among these clotheslines? And wasn’t it a shame that your parents wouldn’t allow it? Can you recall the stories, adventures, and playful ideas that were born in this laundry landscape?
A garden or the outside areas of preschools can easily recreate this wonderful opportunity for the creative outpouring. Transferring this everyday experience to your outdoors prepared environment is a wonderful and playful way of promoting a child’s physical abilities, movement patterns, social-emotional skills, and imagination.
Illustrations: Tommaso Lana
Learning Outdoors to Foster and Protect Children’s Eyesight
Discover and understand the pedagogical potential of the outdoor space around your early learning facility
Learn how to prepare outdoor areas for learning through play
Make the rediscovery of environments outside the classroom
the hallmark of excellence of your school
About the Author
Tommaso Lana is currently the early childhood education consultant (contract) at Los Angeles Public Library and Allegheny County Library Association (Pittsburgh, PA).
He collaborates with large library systems such as Brooklyn Public Library, Queens Public Library, and San Mateo County Libraries. Moreover, Tommaso served New York Public Library, ALSC (ALA), and Pennsylvania Library Association.
Tommaso is the founder and facilitator of Embodied Learning.
Embodied Learning is a multidisciplinary experiential training program that transforms (formal and informal) educators’ communication and interaction skills through sensory play, movement, and imagination.
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